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"Why am I in prison, Mom?'

Published Jan. 24, 1993|Updated Oct. 8, 2005

The police had the wrong man.

Nine years later, it's easy to see that the case against John Gordon Purvis was shaky from the start.

But the crime had been so horrible, and justice needed to be swift.

Susan Hamwi, 38, a Fort Lauderdale beautician and real estate agent, was stabbed, strangled and left dead on her kitchen floor in November 1983. Her 18-month-old daughter, Shane, was not hurt but was left alone in her crib. She slowly died of dehydration in the week before her mother's body was found.

John Purvis, 42, was a neighbor, a schizophrenic who had lived quietly with his mother all his life. He had never been in trouble, but when police began to ask questions, women in the neighborhood complained that he unnerved them. He was weird. He particularly pestered the lovely woman down the block, Susan Hamwi.

So the police picked him up for questioning.

And Purvis confessed.

"I stabbed her in the heart. I stabbed her in the heart. Three times I stabbed her. Three times I stabbed her," Purvis said, repeating every phrase, his voice rushed and breathless on the tape recording.

"She screamed, yes, she screamed. I just choked her and everything. I choked her and everything."

Susan Hamwi had rebuffed him, Purvis told police, so he killed her.

Then, having given police the answers they so obviously wanted, Purvis asked, "Now can I go home?"

Instead, he went to trial and to prison for life. It was March 1985.

This month Fort Lauderdale police said accusing Purvis was a terrible mistake. They reopened the case last fall and gradually discovered they were wrong about Purvis. The prosecutor and jury were wrong, too.

Purvis was freed from prison Jan. 14. The same day, Susan Hamwi's ex-husband was arrested and charged with two counts of murder.

Police said Paul Hamwi, a well-known businessman in Aspen, Colo., paid two hit men $14,000 to kill his ex-wife so he could avoid paying alimony. One of the alleged hit men was arrested as well.

The other suspect, now terminally ill, has confessed in chilling detail. He was granted full immunity.

How did police crack the case? They followed up on a tip they first received in 1985, just two months after John Purvis was convicted.

Ex-husband had an alibi

"I thought from the very beginning that Paul Hamwi was the only one who had a real motive to kill this woman or have her killed," said Richard Kirsch, who was Purvis' defense attorney.

When Susan Hamwi died, her ex-husband was being threatened with contempt of court if he didn't pay her a $12,000 lump sum, $12,000 in legal fees and $500-a-month alimony.

Kirsch tried hard at Purvis' 1985 trial to cast suspicion on Paul Hamwi, but Hamwi had an alibi. He was in Aspen when his ex-wife was killed, and he could prove it.

"The police admitted on cross-examination that they had four suspects, which included Paul Hamwi," Kirsch said. "But they had picked up John, and he had confessed.

"Here's a guy that's schizo. To people that don't understand this disease, he appears odd to say the least. . . . He was the logical one. If you want to clear up a case, here's the guy."

John Purvis was extremely dependent on his mother, Emma Jo Bartlett. He felt safe with her. Police waited until Purvis was out alone to pick him up for questioning.

For four hours, Purvis continually asked police to call his mother and asked when he could go home. He told them he had killed Susan Hamwi. He would have told them anything to get back to his mother, attorney Kirsch said.

"To take him away from his mother, it's like taking a 6-year-old child away from his mother and starting to question him. He's liable to say anything," Kirsch said.

Purvis recanted the next day and has maintained his innocence ever since.

Police never found any physical evidence connecting Purvis to the murder: no hairs, fibers or fingerprints. A neighbor testified she heard Purvis and his mother talking inside Susan Hamwi's house before the body was found, but the memory emerged through hypnosis.

Most significantly, Purvis' taped confession was thrown out by a judge because Purvis hadn't been read his rights before the interrogation.

The best evidence against Purvis, then, was the testimony of psychiatrist Joel Klass, who met with Purvis shortly before police began to question him. Klass now says he had no idea that his preliminary interview was the key to the whole case.

He testified that while he was giving Purvis some routine competency tests, Purvis blurted out that he had killed Susan Hamwi. Klass alerted the detectives, and they came in the room to tape Purvis' statement.

Had the jury heard the tape, Klass says now, they would have heard Purvis' ramblings and inconsistencies. Purvis mistakenly described how Susan Hamwi was killed and what she was wearing. He claimed to have strangled and smothered the baby, who wasn't touched. He claimed to have taken a ring, when a watch was missing.

"It's unfortunate (Purvis') attorney was able to keep the long, contradictory confession from the jury because I think the doubts would have been far stronger," Klass said.

Furthermore, Klass said, he was appalled at the leading questions asked by the police, so much so that he left partway through the interrogation and has never worked with the police again.

"It was like they knew they had their man and they were going to get a confession," he said.

One of those detectives, Rick Rice, now lives outside Ocala. "I'm absolutely convinced we had the right guy," he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel after Purvis was freed from prison. "There's no question about it."

The jury thought so too. They weighed the evidence for eight hours.

"I certainly feel terrible about this happening to anyone," juror Ruth Kessler told the Miami Herald. "I'm just glad that he did not get the death penalty."

No remorse, no sadness

The friends of Susan Hamwi remember her as strikingly beautiful and delightfully unpretentious. She always supported herself, working first as a beautician and later selling real estate in Fort Lauderdale.

When news reached Aspen, Colo., that Susan Hamwi had been murdered, her friend Karen Graser went into hysterics. Her first thought was of Paul Hamwi.

"Immediately, immediately, I said, "That son of a bitch did it. He did it. He had her killed,' " Graser said.

Graser and Susan Hamwi had been best friends for 20 years, since their days in beauty school. They knew every detail of each other's lives and sometimes lived together.

"She was my best and only friend," Graser said. "I've never been able to replace her. Friends are harder to replace than husbands."

When Graser began dating and later married a man from Aspen, Susan Hamwi vacationed there with her. That's how she met Paul Hamwi, who owned a construction company in Aspen and was a friend of Graser's new husband.

Susan was pregnant when she and Hamwi married in 1981.

"She was very upset," Graser said. "She was a good Catholic girl. She just could not have that baby on her own, which I wish she would have done."

Susan Hamwi moved to Aspen, but the couple soon filed for divorce. Susan moved in with Graser.

Karen Graser would testify later that Paul Hamwi beat up Susan during the divorce and that Susan was afraid of him. The divorce was granted, but the dispute about alimony dragged on.

Susan decided to return to Fort Lauderdale, where she still owned a house in a modest neighborhood. Living in the glitzy Aspen ski resort was too expensive.

"She packed up and put the baby in the car," Graser said. "I was crying in the driveway, begging her not to leave. I knew that was the last time I'd see her. I knew she was going to die."

When Graser boarded a plane to go to Susan's funeral in Fort Lauderdale, Paul Hamwi and his lawyer were on the same flight.

"The plane barely took off, he came running up to me. Instead of saying, "Karen, I'm so sorry you have lost your best friend and I've lost my baby and my ex-wife' _ any kind of remorse, any kind of sadness _ he said, "Karen, I want you to know, I didn't do it. I didn't do it. I didn't do it.' "

Karen Graser never liked Paul Hamwi and believed he was guilty. She told the Fort Lauderdale police. She told John Purvis' attorney. But she had no evidence, only her instincts.

Hamwi initially was a prime suspect _ any spouse is _ but he seemed eager to cooperate with police. He submitted to questioning, offered hair samples, fingerprints, anything to help them.

There was no evidence of a contract killing, perhaps a less common crime 10 years ago. And John Purvis confessed.

The tip stayed in files

In May 1985, the same month that Purvis entered prison, a suspect in a California murder claimed his father, Robert Beckett Sr., had been hired to kill a woman in Florida. The tip was passed on to Fort Lauderdale police, who investigated for about six months, but the lead went nowhere.

It resurfaced in 1988. The son promised to testify against his father in return for leniency in the California case. Police said no deal. The tip stayed in the files of Fort Lauderdale police, and Purvis stayed in prison.

Then in October 1992, the lawyer appealing Purvis' case asked to see the files. Detective Timothy Bronson was leafing through them when he saw the old tips about Robert Beckett and saw how weak the case against Purvis had been.

He was interested, and so was his boss, Capt. Bruce Smith, who ordered the case reopened.

"It was a very circumstantial case," Smith said. "I've never seen a case like that before."

Bronson and Detective Robert Williams found Beckett in Nevada and finally got him to talk by promising not to prosecute him. Beckett, now 54, is suffering from heart disease, and his doctor does not expect him to live long. By some accounts, he is a born-again Christian.

The tape of Beckett's four-hour confession is so detailed that he must have been at the murder scene, Capt. Smith said. "We're totally convinced."

Beckett said he was hired for $14,000 by Paul Hamwi and that he recruited a friend, Paul Serio, a substitute teacher in Texas, to help with the slaying. Susan Hamwi let them in because she knew Beckett from Aspen, where he had worked for Hamwi's construction company.

The baby's death was not intentional, Beckett told police. The men left a bottle of water in her crib and believed that arrangements had been made to ensure someone would discover Susan Hamwi's body soon, Smith said.

But Hamwi didn't seem upset later that his daughter died too, Beckett told police.

No law to compensate

It's not clear how much the Fort Lauderdale police were told about Beckett while the wrong man was in prison. It's not clear whether they should have pursued the tips more forcefully years ago. The officers involved then are not those involved now.

"There's some information that could have been followed up more thoroughly," Capt. Smith acknowledged.

Paul Hamwi, 46, has remained in Aspen all these years. His construction company specializes in condominiums, and he and his brother own a popular restaurant called Little Annie's. Hamwi lives in a $700,000 condo, which is the middle range for real estate in Aspen, and has not remarried.

Locals were rocked by the news that Hamwi had been linked to his ex-wife's death.

"I just know Paul. He wouldn't do this," friend Charlotte Wren told the Miami Herald. "He's a fun-loving, gentle soul."

But others said Hamwi was not popular in Aspen.

"Most people are very shocked and say, "Can you believe it? Can you believe it?' " police Detective Beth Ufkes said. "And other people say, "It really doesn't surprise us.' "

Hamwi is in jail without bail, awaiting a hearing Feb. 1 before he is brought to Florida.

John Purvis is awaiting a hearing to vacate his life sentence.

Purvis, now 51, and his mother have gone home to her condo in Sunrise to rebuild their lives. They have asked not to be disturbed by reporters. But the day after Purvis left prison, the two gave a news conference.

"Prison was pure hell. It sucks," Purvis said.

"I want to drive a car, just see the world again. I'll probably go swimming every day and eat steak every night. I'm sick of those powdered eggs."

"There are no words to describe how happy I am," Mrs. Bartlett said. "I would visit him every week, and he would say, "Why am I in prison, Mom?' "

Florida has no law to compensate people who have been wrongfully imprisoned. Steve Wisotsky, Purvis' current attorney, said he might ask the Florida Legislature for a special claim. Mrs. Bartlett spent her life savings trying to save her son.

_ Information from the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Aspen Times Daily and St. Petersburg Times researcher Kitty Bennett was used in this story.

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